Watching the Border: The Virtual Fence

Steve Kroft Reports on The High-Tech Project That Is Supposed to Secure The U.S.-Mexican Border

CBS All Access
This video is available on CBS All Access
In fact, after three years and a billion dollars, they are still fiddling with the first 28 miles, with 1,972 to go. And that is just one of the problems.

"You know, when Boeing first got the contract back in 2006, they made promises that they would be able to apprehend, at least detect and apprehend 95 percent, plus or minus five percent, of all the incursions," Stana told Kroft.

Asked if that has happened, Stana told Kroft, "No. They promised camera ranges of ten miles. They promised radar ranges without clutter."

But that didn't happen either, according to Stana.

And that's not all: the software had bugs, some of the equipment proved unreliable in the heat and high winds of the desert, components would break, and maintenance proved to be an issue.

According to the new project director, Mark Borkowski, part of the problem was that Boeing and his predecessors at Homeland Security thought they could get the job done with standard surveillance equipment.

"We were gonna go buy all this equipment that you can buy from vendors today. We call it off the shelf, commercial off the shelf," he told Kroft.

"Radio Shack?" Kroft asked.

"Not quite. But, you know, people sell radars, people sell cameras. So not far off of that. The idea was that should have been a very simple thing to do. You know, go put that on towers, plug it in together. It should work," Borkowski said.

The GAO's Richard Stana told Kroft, "The cameras and the radar, that's the blocking and tackling of the whole system. That's what detects and identifies what's on the screen."

Asked what some of the problems have been with the cameras and radar, Stana said, "Well, with the radar, they were very susceptible to weather. You know, if it was raining, it would train on raindrops. If the wind blew mesquite leaves around on a bush, it would train on that as activity. You really don't want that. You don't want agents out looking for bushes and raindrops."

But the biggest problem - and you may find this hard to fathom - was that no one at the Department of Homeland Security or the engineers at Boeing bothered to ask the people who would actually be using the surveillance system what they wanted or how they wanted the system to work.

"I'm just kind of amazed that they're building this, what's gonna be a multi-billion dollar system for the Border Patrol, and nobody asked the Border Patrol. What... they needed or wanted, or what would be helpful," Kroft remarked.

"What we didn't do was iterate with them and said, 'Okay. Well, we heard that you'd like to be able to see what's going on the border. How about a little of this?' How about . . . we didn't do that. And that should have happened," Borkowski replied.

Borkowski acknowledged it was a "huge mistake" and that currently he's responsible for it. "And we'll just leave it at that. That's my job now, to fix that."

One of the results was that the original plan called for Border Patrol agents to be connected to the electronic surveillance system with laptop computers that they would carry in their off-road vehicles.

But if anyone had bothered to ask the agents, they would have said that laptops are hard to operate bounding though the desert, that the dust would prove inhospitable to the equipment, and that the agents would be unable to get a signal over vast stretches of the desolate region.

It's a glitch that confounded even government auditors like Rich Stana.

"How does that happen, that you decide you're gonna build a billion dollar system, and then not talk to the people you're building it for?" Kroft asked.

"They really were in the mindset of, you know, pedal to the metal. They wanted to go full steam ahead with this virtual fence back in '05, '06, for whatever reason. So the kinds of things that you would expect to see in a large, multi-billion dollar program, you didn't see right away," Stana said.

"Isn't that one of the first questions you ask? Like, okay, what does the customer think? What does the client want?" Kroft asked.

"Well, you would think so. I mean, you don't want to build an Edsel," Stana said.

Asked if this project is like an Edsel, Stana told Kroft, "Don't know. You know, we'll have to wait and see. We're waiting for something that works."